Which sociotechnical imaginary?

Sociotechniccal imaginaries have been defined as “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology”

Sheila Jasanoff, 2015. Future imperfect: Science, technology, and the imaginations of modernity. In
Dreamscapes of modernity: Sociotechnical imaginaries and the fabrication of power, ed. S. Jasanoff and S.-H. Kim, pp. 1–33. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

But then: whose visions? Even within a large sociotechnical system like an infrastructure, whose imaginaries?

Clearly not just those of the CEO and the rest of the C-suite. Nor its investors and regulators. Nor policymakers and legislators of concern.

For any large sociotechnical system has its equivalent street-level bureaucrats, front-line implementers, and middle level reliability professionals, who have their own visions and facts on the ground at variance with the others. They are often credited with de facto policymaking.


An example: Consider the commonplace that regulatory compliance is “the baseline for risk mitigation” in society’s critical infrastructures.

Yet there is no reason to assume that compliance–a sociotechnical imaginary if there ever was one!–is the same baseline for, inter alios,

  • the infrastructure’s operators in the field, including the eyes-and-ears field staff;
  • the infrastructure’s headquarters’ staff responsible for monitoring industry practices for meeting government compliance mandates;
  • the senior officials in the infrastructure who see the need for far more than compliance by way of enterprise risk management;
  • those other infrastructure professionals responsible for thinking through “what-if” scenarios that vary by all manner of contingencies; and, last but not least,
  • the infrastructure’s reliability professionals—its control room operators, should they exist, and immediate support staff—in the middle of all this, especially in their role of surmounting stickiness by way of official procedures and protocols–the “official” sociotechnical imaginary–undermining real-time system reliability.


So what?

These differences in orientation with respect to e.g., “baseline compliance,” mean societal values for systemwide reliability and safety can be just as differentiated and distributed as these staff and their responsibilities are. Where highly reliable infrastructures matter to a society, it must also be expected that the social values reflected in these infrastructures not only differ across infrastructures but within them.

Sociotechnical imaginaries, in other words, are from the get-go very differentiated forms of life.

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